The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 1/On Babylonian Folk-lore


I HAVE more than once sat down to write a few words about the folk-lore of the ancient Babylonians, but have given up the attempt again on finding how meagre and unsatisfactory are our materials for it. The clay books of the old libraries of Chaldæa and Assyria have furnished us with rich stores of mythology; we have learned that Babylonia was a very treasure-house of myths, many of which subsequently made their way through the hands of the Phœnicians into Greece, and we have even discovered that a particular group or cycle of those myths had been formed into a great epic by Chaldean poets more than four thousand years ago. But while we have myths and religious legends, epic poems and hymns to the gods in abundance, notices of folk-lore, of popular tales and traditions, are scanty in the extreme.

Perhaps this is not surprising. Babylonian literature was necessarily intended for the learned and cultivated, for the very class, in fact, among whom folk-tales are least likely to be found. Royal libraries are the last places in which to look for the unwritten literature of the multitude; folk-lore found its home, not among scribes and savans, but in the houses of the peasantry, and the streets of the bazaar. As yet the “readers” for whom, we are told, the cuneiform books were copied out and edited, had no idea that there was anything worthy of regard in the popular stories of their uneducated countrymen; no Folk-Lore Societies had been thought of, much less founded. It is only by accident, therefore, that a stray folk-tale has here and there found its way into the Babylonian and Assyrian literature which has come down to us.

One of these tales has been preserved through its having gathered round the person of the most munificent patron of literature Babylonia ever produced. About 1900 B.C., or perhaps earlier, northern Babylonia was under the sway of a monarch named Sargon, whose capital was at Aganè, near Sippara. Here he established a library, which was afterwards very famous in the literary annals of the country. Works which became standard authorities on the subjects with which they dealt were compiled for it, and a large staff of scribes was kept busily employed in stocking it with books. The court was thronged with authors and learned men, among whom astronomers, astrologers, and soothsayers, occupied a prominent place.

But Sargon was not only a patron of learning, he was also a renowned legislator, and a successful general. He pushed his conquests to the shores of the Mediterranean, where he set up an image of himself on the Syrian coast, and he even crossed over to Cyprus, and introduced the culture of the far east for the first time into the islands of the Greeks.

It was little wonder, therefore, that Sargon I. became a hero of popular romance, more especially as he seems to have been an usurper, who had risen from the ranks. A text has been preserved to us which makes him thus recount the story of his life:

1. “Sargon, the mighty monarch, the King of Aganè, am I.

2. “My mother was a princess; my father I knew not; my father’s brother loved the mountain-land.

3. “In the city of Azupiranu, which on the bank of the Euphrates lies,

4. “My mother, the princess, conceived me; in an inaccessible spot she brought me forth.

5. “She placed me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen the door of my ark she closed.

6. “She launched me on the river, which drowned me not.

7. “The river bore me along, to Akki the irrigator it brought me.

8. “Akki, the irrigator, in the tenderness of his heart, lifted me up.

9. “Akki, the irrigator, as his own child brought me up.

10. “Akki, the irrigator, as his gardener appointed me,

11. “And in my gardenership the goddess Istar loved me.

12. “For 45 years the kingdom I have ruled

13. “And the black-headed (Accadian) race have governed.

14. “In multitudes of bronze chariots I rode over rugged lands.

15. “I governed the upper countries.

16. “I ruled the chiefs of the lower countries.

17. “Three times to the coast of the (Persian) sea I advanced, Dilvun submitted,

18. “The Fort of the God of Hades bowed.”

The story, it will be seen, is the oft-told one, how the hero of noble birth is born in secret and exposed to death, but rescued and brought up in obscurity until the time comes when his true origin and character are revealed, and he becomes a mighty prince and conqueror. Sargon of Aganè is but the prototype of Perseus in Greece, of Romulus in Italy, or of Kyros in Persia; and, as in the case of Kyros so also in the case of Sargon, the legend has been fastened upon a real personage. It is curious that the doomed hero-child is usually enclosed in an ark or chest, which is entrusted to the water. This was the case with both Perseus and Romulus, whose story has a remarkable resemblance to that of Sargon; and it is impossible not to recognise the close likeness that exists between what we are here told of Sargon and the account of the exposure of the infant Moses, who was similarly placed in an ark of bulrushes, daubed with bitumen, and laid among the flags of the river Nile. On the other hand, Kyros, like Oidipous, was exposed on a mountain, and not on a river, and accordingly no chest or vessel was required for him. In declaring that Sargon was loved by Istar “in his gardenership,” the tale confuses the king of Aganè with Isullanu, “the gardener” of Anu, Istar’s father, “who made bright her dish each day,” until she forced him to eat his own eyes and changed him into a pillar of stone. The rationalising history of a later day made the gardener Belêtaras or Tiglath-Pileser II. who had served the former king Beleous or Bêlokhos, it is recounted, in that capacity, and subsequently seized the crown (Agathias II. 25, 15.) That the successful usurper of popular tradition had been a gardener or “overseer of the orchard,” was indelibly impressed upon the mind of the people.

Like other heroes, Sargon’s father was unknown, though the legend did not go so far as to suggest that he had not an earthly one. Equally, too, like other heroes, his mother was a princess, though there was a reason for this in the folk-lore of Accad which did not exist in the folk-lore of Greece, or Rome, or Persia. Among the Accadians the wife and not the husband was the head of the family; descent was counted through her; and it was only through the mother, therefore, that the hero could claim a royal ancestry. As the folk-lore of Accad thus supplies an explanation of a fact which, Mr. McLennan notwithstanding, is not supplied in the folk-lore of an Aryan people, it is difficult not to suggest that the Aryan story of the exposed but eventually triumphant hero was originally disseminated from the banks of the Euphrates.

How Sargon obtained his rights and became “the established king,” which is the meaning of his name, we are not told, though it is hinted that it was through the intervention of Istar, the Ashtoreth of the Phœnicians, the Aphroditè of the Greeks. Perhaps some other version of the legend will be found which will throw light on this point.

My next specimen of ancient Babylonian folk-lore is a mere fragment, but we possess it in its original Accadian text as well as in the Assyrian translation. Its character will best be judged from the following rendering of it:

1. “(The child) who had neither father nor mother, who knew not his father or his mother

2. “Into the fish pond (?) he came,[1] into the street he went.

3. “From the mouth of the dogs one took him, from the mouth of the ravens one led (him) away.

4. “Before the soothsayer one took him from their mouth.

5. “The soles of his feet with the soothsayer’s seal underneath him were marked.

6. “To the nurse he was given.

7. “To the nurse for three years his grain, his food, his shirt, and his clothing were assured.

8. “So for a time his rearing went on for him.

9. “He that reared him rejoiced (?)

10. “His stomach with the milk of man he filled and made him his own son.”

The mutilation of the tablet prevents our knowing whether the story was continued. Its preservation at all is due to a curious accident. It is found in an Accadian reading-book, intended to teach the elements of the extinct Accadian language of primitive Chaldea to Babylonian boys of a later date. Easy passages in Accadian have been selected for the purpose, and provided with Assyrian translations, while the text is interspersed with exercises upon the principal words occuring in them. Thus the phrase “he made him his own son,” is followed by examples of the various ways in which the words composing it could be combined with other parts of speech or replaced by corresponding expressions—“his son,” “his sonship,” “for his sonship,” “for his son he reckoned him,” “in the register of sonship he inscribed him,” &c. Like the lesson-books of our own nurseries, this old Babylonian lesson-book also chose such stories as were likely to interest children, and the author of it wisely took his passages from the folk-lore and fairy-tales of the boys’ nursery rather than from the advanced literature of grown-up men. The story of the foundling was no doubt familiar to Babylonian children, who could fill in the beginning and the end, which are not given in the lesson itself. It would seem, however, that, as in similar tales of the kind, the good angel who rescued the child from the gutter was a king. At all events the whole story is prefaced with the statement that “the king gave his name to the child,” and this statement appears only in the Semitic Assyrian text.

These are the only examples I have yet come across of what can properly be called Babylonian folk-lore. The beast-fables of which we possess several fragments translated in George Smith’s Chaldean Genesis can hardly be reckoned to belong to it. The Accadian proverbs, again, of which I have given translations in the Records of the Past (vol. xi.), must be classed apart, though they throw a good deal of light upon the native wit and daily life of the illiterate country population. Such proverbs as “Once and yet again twice has he made gains; yet he is not content,” or “A man must do his own digging and working himself,” find an echo in the proverbial philosophy of most peoples. More closely related to folk-tales are the short songs with which the Accadian peasant solaced his labours in the field or farm-yard. A number of these have been collected and preserved in an old work on agriculture which was probably compiled for the library of Sargon at Aganè. Here are some specimens of what they are like:

1.Like an oven
That is old,
Against thy foes
Be hard and firm.

2.The corn is high
And flourishing;
We know why.
The corn is bearded
And flourishing;
We know why.

3.The fruit of death
Tho’ I eat.
The fruit of life
May I make it.

4.May he suffer vengeance,
May it be returned to him
Who gives the provocation.

5.The marsh he passes as tho’ it were not;
His skin that is grazed is healed.

6.If evil thou doest,
To the everlasting sea
Surely thou shalt go.

7.Thou wentest, thou spoiledst
The land of the foe,
For the foe came and spoiled
Thy land, even thine.

8.A heifer am I,
To the cow I am yoked;
The plough-handle is strong,
Lift it up, lift it up!

9.Before the oxen as they march,
All in the grain thou liest thee down.

10.My knees are marching,
My feet are not resting;
With no wealth of thy own
Grain thou makest for me.”

The last three songs are plainly addressed to the oxen, and must have been favourites among their drivers. The Accadians of Babylonia were pre-eminently an agricultural people, and it is only natural, therefore, that their popular songs should mainly have reference to the works of the field.

  1. This is the Assyrian translation. The Accadian has: “in the fishpond he was remembered.”